Fake it till you make it: drifting bees, new communities, & Ignite Boulder


Learning from women beekeepers (photo by Irfan Kandemir).

It was one of those fall days where autumn sun glowed on the backs of hands and webbed bee wings. Where the air smelled like apples and hazelnuts, and the first dead leaves crunched into brown flakes under our feet.

I sat beneath the sun and digested my last days in Turkey. I would soon be returning to Colorado, without a job, or health insurance, or a clear plan. Truly uncharted territory. Sure, quitting my job and moving to Kars was frightening, but even then, there was a sense of adventure, and a clear path. I would either learn about beekeeping, or I wouldn’t. The research stage is more about knowledge and potential than decision-making and commitment.

Returning home would be different. I would have the time and space to make my decision about committing to Balyolu. And although I know what is there, my family, my community, and my friends – ironically – with knowledge can exist even more ambiguity. Would I rise to the challenge? Would my dream of starting a business become a reality? How would I structure my days without bees and beekeepers, birds, and scientists stimulating my emotions and filling my brain?

I knew the work style would shift. No more romping in wild Northeastern plateaus. No, if I were to go through with my business and make it work, it would be grant writing, networking, studying bee books, working hour after hour in coffee shops, researching laws and restrictions, scheduling meeting after meeting, and connecting with colleagues over Skype calls. I would be lonely without an office or formal place of employment, I would have to rebuild a community and recruit a team, and I would be wedged between the two worlds I love, one foot in both, balanced upon big questions about where I would land.

On that fall day, I sucked my thoughts in with a deep breath and studied the bees. Upon closer inspection, I saw teams of bees meticulously collecting baby bees and with nimble legs and tarsal claws, delicately escorting them out of their hives. Still a new bee enthusiast, I turned to my professor colleague and mentor Irfan and asked what was going on.

He explained that when baby bees leave the hive to play, sometimes they become confused and drift to the wrong hive. Because they enter unassuming, as if the hive was their own – the guard bees do not attack them as foreigners or robbers. Instead, the resident bees guide the confused baby bees back to the entrance of the hive in the direction of their original home.

Since returning to Colorado, I have thought about young bees entering a hive that is not their own. Even though bees can be territorial, particularly in light of robbing, they understand the situation is different with the baby bees. The key to this moment of seeming compassion in nature is a result of the baby bees’ behavior. The baby bees in their own ignorance act confidently, comfortably, and at home – putting the guard bees at ease.

More and more, we live in a world that is transitory, where we drift from one home to the next, from one community, or village, or city to another. A common instinct of self-protection and preservation is to act tough, to have thick skin, to quickly identify what is unfamiliar, to be prepared to be alone. No one wants to be a naive baby bee wandering into a hive that could at once turn around and attack it as a target.

But what happens when we ignore our instincts – instincts of being afraid, of noting differences, of reacting – and instead embrace the new challenge as if it was just another day of growth and learning? Even if we ended up in the wrong place, would our openness and our willingness to try earn us safe passage?

Returning to Colorado has been beyond intimidating. My community here is full of entrepreneurs, 22-year-olds on their 5th business, tech startup founders who ridicule my ideas before even knowing my name, experienced leaders in the field who give me their precious time – closing down restaurants while discussing theories for change.

Even when I feel like I don’t always belong, I try to twist my fear into openness, to expose my weaknesses, and even my naiveté. I admit with a laugh and a smile that I often don’t know what I am doing, that I am looking for mentors, advice, recommendations, suggestions, feedback, colleagues, and friends. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Hilary Clinton once acknowledged that she embraces the saying “fake it till you make it.” Whether as young bees drifting into the wrong hive, or a person with a dream on the move, sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing. But with the right poise, we can hold the stingers at bay until we find our way. And as humans, we have a little more slack than bees – because let’s face it – most of our species rarely knows fully what we’re doing.

In my attempt to dive into the Boulder community, I volunteered to give an Ignite talk without knowing what I was signing up for. Check out the video to learn what lessons startup businesses can take away from swarm dynamics.

Oh, and as usual, I’m nervous.

Cat Jaffee observes bees in Zonguldak (photo by Irfan Kandemir).

Cat Jaffee observes bees in Zonguldak (photo by Irfan Kandemir).

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About Cat

Catherine de Medici Jaffee is a National Geographic Young Explorer, a Fulbright Scholar, a Luce Fellow, the Founder of Balyolu: the Honey Road, and a lunatic about honey culture in the Caucasus. Raised on a farm in the Colorado Rockies, Cat grew up loving animals, dirt, and altitude. Her dedication and passion for animals, agriculture, and women leaders has launched her across the world as a Luce and Fulbright scholar: to raise Aigamo ducks in Japan, to research yak trade caravans in Sikkim, and to study rural women’s migration in Turkey. In particular, Turkey - with its fish hung like laundry from windows, its 9,000 species of flowers, and its delicious honey - continues to lure Cat back to its borders. Cat’s love for Turkey, the mountains, agriculture, and women’s leadership blend together sweetly in her new venture Balyolu and her blog Inspired Beeing. You can most frequently find her jumping on a mountain, running from angry bees, cooking in villages, hitching on dirt roads, or joking with Turkcell about her internet woes. Cat is joined by her partner in crime Claire Bangser, artist, photographer, writer, and globe wanderer who believes in creative storytelling as a way to powerfully connect people across mental and physical borders. From working with small-scale women farmers in Mali, to documenting peoples' lives along a 2,000 mile bike tour in the US, she finds that every person (and bee) has an important story to tell and much wisdom to share (speaking of Wisdom, Claire just published her first book, Ride Somewhere Far. Check it out on our Link Roll). These days, you're most likely to find Claire upside down, yodeling from a mountaintop, making tragic mistakes in Turkish, or eating meat for Cat.

Posted on December 20, 2011, in Business, Culture, Environment, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. loved watching your talk video. rock on!

  2. Great talk. Whatever happens, you should be really proud of everything you’ve achieved.

  3. I am sorry to say that I don’t think one really gets over the nervousness any more than we really know what we are doing…Re letting go though, yes, I think it’s only when you can let go of the proscribed mores/molds and proceed as you see fit to do what you need to do that you can move forward: all the more so if you have spent time figuring out what to do where ‘what’ needs to be done.There’s a lot to let go of, yes. And damn, that honey is good!

  4. Kudos to you Cat! You are doing an amazing job. I love this post and the analogy between your own life and the baby bee. My hope for you is that you climb over the hurdles and return to Turkey soon to keep working on this project!

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